Shternshis: Surprised by the vibrancy of Jewish life in Moscow

Benjamin Vekselman reads from the Torah Scroll, Yakov Bar is on the right. Moscow Choral Synagogue, Feb. 7, 2019 (Anna Shternshis photo)

As I was getting ready to go to Russia, I packed about three kilos of kosher cheese for my sister’s family in Moscow.  The variety and supply at our local No Frills on Wilson Avenue in Toronto apparently vastly exceeds anything she has access to in the Russian capital.

I also bought six volumes of Mishnah Berurah, complete with nekudot, and two volumes of Mikraot Gedolot. These were gifts for my nephew Benjamin, whose bar mitzvah was that weekend. How strange life works out sometimes, that I schlep this cheese and these books across the world for Julia, and I won’t cross the street to buy any of that for my own family, who prefers treif cheese and graphic novels.

One does not often think of Moscow as a centre of Jewish life, but that common wisdom is wrong. During my five-day trip, I delivered a program (together with musician Psoy Korolenko) on Yiddish songs lost during the Second World War to a crowd of over 400 people at Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre, spoke at an academic conference on Jewish oral histories from the Second World War, had coffee with my friend Motya Chlenov, director of the thriving Moscow branch of PJ library and attended a two-part bar mitzvah celebration in two different synagogues, one of which was the gorgeous Moscow choral shul.


On Saturday, I went to Benjamin’s main bar mitzvah celebration, held in the Lyubertzy Jewish community centre (do not confuse with Lubavitch!), based in a working-class neighbourhood in Moscow. The shul, complete with a dining hall, a full kosher kitchen, a game room for children and a huge apartment for overnight guests (as most of the members spend the night there on Shabbat), is located in the building of a former sugar-processing factory. The prayer room resembles an old-country shtibl: crowded, filled with young men wearing tallitot, gathered around Torah scrolls (the community now owns two: one was donated, and one they purchased). Windows are scarce in all the rooms, as are decorations.

Leah Vekselman, 8, in the women’s balcony at the Moscow Choral Synagogue on Feb. 7, 2019 (Anna Shternshis photo)

From behind the mechitzah, I was shocked to recognize so many faces, many of whom I had not seen since I left Russia more than two decades ago. Although now obscured by long beards, these were people I knew from back in the 1990s, some as students of what were then new Jewish studies programs in Moscow, others I met long ago at Jewish community organizations. Needless to say, at that time, none of us were observant.

My nephew did a beautiful reading of all his seven portions of parashah and haftarah. Almost every man and some women delivered dvar torah and so did the newly minted bar mitzvah. It was surreal to see so much energy, excitement and joy about Torah from people who, like me, grew up so far away from religion.

I asked a friend whether he wears a kippah on the streets of Moscow. “I cannot do it. My Soviet upbringing does not let me,” he explained. “I prefer looking ridiculous wearing a baseball hat with a suit, but my children are different. If someone says something negative to them about wearing a kippah, they do not see it as a threat; they just ignore it as impolite or irrelevant. It’s a new generation!”

Indeed, the generational change among Russian Jews was striking in that room. Non-religious (OK, fine, slightly anti-religious) grandparents, baalei teshuvah parents in their 40s and their beautiful children who grow up proudly Jewish.

My trip was full of pleasant surprises about the vibrancy of Jewish life in Moscow. I did not expect to see such successful grassroots initiatives, such as the revival of the Lyuberetz community, led by the young charismatic cantor Yakov Bar, who found a way to achieve what Jewish community leaders across Canada are still trying to accomplish – getting people in their 40s excited about Jewish communal life. Maybe a federation learning trip to Russia is in order. Do not forget to pack the kosher cheese!